This Year's Fake Nobel Prize Story: Edward Snowden

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 30 2014 8:58 AM

This Year's Fake Nobel Prize Story: Edward Snowden

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Edward Snowden finally achieves his goal of being in the same category as his idol John Bolton.

Photo by The Guardian via Getty Images

Fake news is breaking out all over. Yesterday multiple news organizations competed to break the "news" that a White House petition calling for the deportation of warbling Canadian lawbreaker Justin Bieber had crossed the 100,000-signature mark. That meant the White House would respond. Scores of confused readers shared the news on Facebook, with the same I-guess-we-gotta reply from the White House; Asawin Suebsaeng was one of the few reporters who noted that Bieber had an O-1 artist visa and couldn't be easily deported.

Hours later, Agence France-Presse broke the news that two Norwegian parliamentarians had nominated Edward Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize. "A country's legitimate need for reliable intelligence to preserve its own security must always be balanced against the people's individual freedoms -- and the global need for trust -- as an integral condition for stability and peace," wrote Bård Vegard Solhjell and Snorre Valen. This became top-of-page, trending news on nearly every website, from NPR to CNET. The race is on to tell readers what this means.

Here's what it means: Two Norwegian parliamentarians got publicity for themselves and for Edward Snowden. The Nobel Prize "nominee" is a bogus story that gets recycled every year, with new celebrities rotated in the headline. I see my friend Michael Moynihan has beaten me to the wire on this, so I'll just quote him:

Remember that flurry of reports in October that “Russian President Vladimir Putin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by an advocacy group that credits him with bringing about a peaceful resolution to the Syrian-U.S. dispute over chemical weapons?” In 2012, hundreds of news organizations reported on Bradley Manning’s nomination (one of those Norwegian parliamentarians who nominated Snowden also nominated Manning). In 2011, the wires were clogged with stories of a potential Peace Prize gong for Julian Assange. And my personal favorite, courtesy of a former Swedish deputy prime minister and parliamentarian, the 2006 nominations of former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and right-wing polemicist Kenneth Timmerman, author of books on Jesse Jackson, the Iran nuclear program, and how the French “betrayed” America. (On the cover of Timmerman’s book Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran, potential readers are told the book is written by “a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.”)
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Moynihan follows these fake news explosions more regularly than I do, but I was turned on to them nine years ago. This was when Dr. William Hammesfahr appeared in Florida, describing himself (and allowing news organizations to describe him) as a Nobel Prize nominee as he argued against pulling Terri Schiavo's plug. A Florida congressman had written a letter recommending him for the prize, and Hammesfahr didn't possess the self-awareness that usually prevents people from saying they were merely nominated for things. (You can safely ignore any reporter or TED speaker whose bio leads with how he made the short list for something but didn't win.)

Snowden may indeed win the prize. What does it mean if he doesn't? Not too much. What does the whole story mean? That the media can't resist a publicity stunt even if it's seen the same trick a hundred times before.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.